On The Trail of A Sleeping Bear

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-6-otter-creek_5015acsIf it’s Michigan, it must be Sleeping Bear Dunes.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-5-empire-trail_4997acsEvery summer that I visit Michigan, I try to spend a day in the sprawling Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Every summer I discover a new favorite place.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Glen Haven.

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District and Platter River Point.

This year it was…

Wait. We have to get there first. In Sleeping Bear Dunes, the journey is the destination. Here are some scenes from the trail.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4734acsGlaciers played a large role in shaping the hills and lakes of the area, depositing deep layers of sand and debris. In this poor soil grows a dense forest of maple and birch. Scattered boulders known as “erratics” were carried here by glaciers from their origins far away.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4776acsAlong the path I look at every fern. Finally, a wood fern I can identify. See the spores along the margins of the frond’s pinnules? It’s a Marginal Wood Fern!

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-6-otter-creek_5049acsOtter Creek.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-2-stocking-drive_4644acsMy new friend is bright-eyed and curious.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-3-empire-trail_4737acs 160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-7-otter-lake_5070acsSunny opening in the woods along the shore of Otter Lake.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-7-otter-lake_5059acsOtter Lake.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-5-empire-trail_4987acsThe best destinations offer journeys of their own. This path took me to my new favorite place in Sleeping Bear Dunes…

In The Neighborhood

160505_PA Home Fox_6938acsLook who dropped in for a visit!

I live in a suburban development built in 1950. Rows of three-bedroom houses flank sidewalk-lined streets. Lots one-tenth of an acre in size are carpeted in grass, lined with ornamental trees and shrubs and gardens full of non-native flowers. The nearby school draws many children, and car traffic is heavy during the busy times of the day.

In other words, there’s not much habitat here for wildlife.

Yet wild critters exist here, and even thrive. Many of the “backyard” bird species are here. Northern Flickers and House Wrens have nested or tried to nest in my birch tree, there’s another nest with babies in my American holly, and last week while I was reading a Common Yellowthroat warbler walked across my porch as bold as you please.

I’ve seen garter snakes in my rock pile, and twice painted turtles took a slow amble through my garden, headed to I don’t know where.

Squirrels and rabbits abound. Raccoons, opossums and small mammals like field mice are around. We don’t often see them, but might see evidence of their passing. To my disappointment, my neighborhood lacks chipmunks.

It doesn’t lack red foxes, however. One of these beautiful animals paid a visit early one morning. There is a park a few blocks away. Though it is mostly open grass and playground equipment, it seems to be adequate habitat for the fox family that lives there.

I suspect more than a few of the neighbors are not happy with the presence of the foxes. They worry that the foxes might carry disease or eat their pets. They might like to see them removed; after all, this is a humans’ world, and wildlife has no place in it.

Yet many also complain about rabbits raiding their vegetable gardens, and shriek at the sight of a mouse. Those small mammals make up a good portion of the diet of a red fox. Remove the predators, and there will be more rabbits to eat your vegetables and mice to get into your house.

Life is a complex web of interrelationships amongst the animals and plants. All are dependent for survival on each other. Through technology and industry, humans have largely removed ourselves from that web. But we still share our space with creatures large and small, and should respect their right to life on their own terms.

Foxes in the neighborhood remind us that even here we live on the Wild Edge.

Winter’s Edge

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1513acsLong gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.

Of humans, but not of wonders.

At last, the beach is ours!

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1563acsFrom late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1555acs2Lines of dune fencing stretch across white sand to the horizon.

141128_NJ Holgate_2948acsThe winter birds arrive at the Shore with the colder weather. Long-tailed Ducks bob in the waves. The females seem to have a lot to say to the pink-billed males.

141128_NJ Holgate_2706acsThis sparrow-like bird is a Snow Bunting.

141128_NJ Holgate_2774acsAs we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.

141128_NJ Holgate2902-5 Pan acsThe dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.

FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1480acsThis is what a healthy dune community should look like. Stone Harbor Point.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1520acsGood fences make good neighbors.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1489acsDune fences make good dunes, and if successful, good dune grasses and plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1552aGood fences make good backdrops for wildflowers, still abloom in mid-November.

141122_NJ Hereford Inlet_1646acsOne doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find woodland critters. The gardens at Hereford Lighthouse provide a fine place for squirrels to make a living.

141122_NJ Nummys Island_1892acsIn the late light of day, a pair of American Oystercatchers squabbles.

Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.

Git Along Little Doggies

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8343acs Getting my daily dose of wildlife while visiting family on vacation can be frustrating. At home I know when and where to go to find cool critters. Heinz Refuge and Cape May in early May for warblers, the Delaware Bayshore in late May for horseshoe crabs and red knots, Hawk Mountain in the fall for raptors. When I go away to visit family, it’s an excellent opportunity to visit new places. But the timing of the visits isn’t always conducive to wildlife spotting.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8314aI go to Texas in the winter. Except at White Rock Lake (where there’s always something happening) I pretty much have to take what I can get.

That means a lot of landscape and plant photography, and accepting that brown is the color of the day.

Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge was no different when I visited; lots of neat habitat, not a lot of wildlife.

Except for the prairie dogs!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8278acs The Nature Center has a prairie dog town. It’s a large area of fenced prairie; I’m not sure whether the fence is to keep the prairie dogs in, or the humans out. The sign above would seem to indicate the latter.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8481acsInside the enclosure, a good number of the little rodents go about their lives. Yes, they are rodents, related to squirrels. The “dog” name comes from their high-pitched bark. Prairie dogs are highly social. They live together in family groups, sometimes called a coterie; a number of groups comprise a ward, and a number of wards make up a town.

The land is peppered with the entrances to their burrows. Weather is harsh in the prairies, and burrows offer protection from floods, hailstorms, fires and temperature extremes. Below the ground are a number of separate chambers for sleeping, raising babies, food storage and elimination. There may be as many as 6 entrances to a burrow. The craters serve as lookout posts and ventilation.

FUN FACT: Burrow holes have different shapes and heights. When the wind blows, air moves into the burrow through the lower, more rounded dome craters; it passes through the burrow and exits through the higher, sharper-edged rim crater.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8444acsPrairie dogs dance! Nuzzling and grooming is common among family groups. It’s ridiculously cute when they do this. Call it the Texas Two-step.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8448acsCONSERVATION PIECE: Not everyone thinks prairie dogs are cute. They feed on grasses, sedges and roots, keeping the vegetation short and churning up the soil. This benefits the habitat by enriching the plant life and attracting other wildlife. Their burrows can provide homes for other critters as well. Because of their importance to the plains, prairie dogs are considered a keystone species.

Despite this, farmers and ranchers often consider them pests, and eliminate them where possible. This has contributed to a population nose-dive, which has had a ripple effect across the plains. The endangered black-footed ferret, which relies on prairie dogs for shelter and food, has been driven to near-extinction by their eradication.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8359acsPrairie dogs have a number of predators besides humans, including raptors, coyotes, snakes and ferrets. So they need to be wary. Living communally affords them safety in numbers. One or more prairie dogs will be on lookout duty at all times.

FUN FACT: Things get interesting when a threat is detected. Prairie dogs have a large repertoire of barks and calls. Years of study have revealed that these calls are capable of indicating not only which species of animal is threatening the colony, but can describe the individual animal. A prairie dog call for a tall human is different than the call for a short one!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8494acsAlways on the lookout, a lone sentry stands guard.

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8346aAll clear!

Fort Worth NCR Prairie Dog_8355acsAnd off we go.

The Sounding Board: To Hunt or Not to Hunt?

The Sounding Board Header 1 cs2

First in an occasional series exploring a motley collection of issues. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the Wild Edge Blog Mistress, not WordPress.com. Furthermore they are constantly evolving. Feel free to comment, applaud or argue. Try to change my mind! Please keep it respectful and pleasant.

While driving around the perimeter of Middle Creek WMA, I came upon a small flock of geese in a field. I couldn’t believe my luck – they were SO close. Then I put my camera up to my eye, and this is what I saw:

Middle Creek Decoys_5751 acsHmm. Snow goose windsocks. A loudspeaker was playing goose calls, and a man in white coveralls lay prone amidst the faux geese. My first thought was that there was some sort of research project going on.

How naïve. It took several days for me to realize that this was a hunting layout.

Snow goose hunting was banned in 1916 when population numbers were too low. Since the geese discovered the waste grain bounty in the 1970s, snow goose populations have boomed. The Atlantic Flyway population that passes through Pennsylvania has grown from 50,000 in the mid-1960s to over one million in recent years. Other flyway populations are expanding even more. Estimates have placed total growth at close to 9% a year.

Middle Creek Snow Geese Distant_5442 acsIt turns out you can have too much of a good thing. The exploding numbers of snow geese have put tremendous pressure on habitats the goose uses. Particularly vulnerable are the fragile Arctic wetlands where the goose breeds. The damage caused by these voracious eating machines not only impacts their own breeding success, but threatens that of nesting shorebirds and other species that share their habitats.

Snow goose hunting was reinstated in the 1970s for population control. Today, a population goal of 500,000 has been set for the Atlantic Flyway population, and in 2008, the USFWS has finalized a Conservation Order allowing Pennsylvania and other states to conduct a Conservation Hunting Season for snow geese. The conservation season differs in that it extends into the migration season, and allows the use of electronic recordings and decoys. Middle Creek WMA is both a refuge for migratory snow geese, and a strictly-monitored hunting area where specially licensed sportsmen can hunt geese for the purpose of population control.

I should mention that there were no live geese to be seen anywhere near that field. Those goose decoys? Clearly the real ones weren’t buying it.

I’ve got a love/hate thing going with hunting. On an individual basis, I hate to see any animal die before its time. Nature has other ideas, of course; big fish eat the little fish, bigger fish eat the big fish, and so on. The cycle of life.

But Man stepped in and started monkeying around with the system, removing predators, destroying habitat, suppressing wildfires, hunting, or banning hunting. We humans bear a heavy burden of responsibility to step in and manage populations so they don’t get out of control.

Valley Forge_0246a ACS Print Take the white-tailed deer, for instance. In Pennsylvania, like so many other places, it’s a pest. Way too many deer are living in habitat that can support a population a tenth of its actual size. The deer destroy the understory that many other critters, from songbirds to small mammals, depend on. Not to mention the damage a car-deer collision can do, to both car and deer, and in my area these encounters are legion.

HNWR Deer_7189 ASCDeer, and snow geese, are beautiful animals, and I love seeing and photographing them. But I also see the bigger picture. Populations have exploded, largely due to the intervention of Man. Is it right to allow other animals suffer from the habitat depredation caused by the deer and geese? Is it right to allow the deer to starve in the winter when there isn’t enough browse to support the whole population?

I don’t believe so. Are there answers other than hunting? Maybe. I won’t go into deer contraception here. That’s a controversial issue that is beyond the scope of my expertise. I will say only that my gut tells me it’s inadequate to the job of managing the deer effectively. Man created this problem, and has a moral imperative to seek solutions. Well-regulated hunting is an important tool maintaining animal populations at a level healthy for themselves and the other species with which they share their environment.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to see the forest rather than the trees.Tinicum_7427 AS Orig

Snowed In

Snow at Home_5661acs Snow at Home_5660acsThe mere threat of a snowstorm is enough to induce panic. We scurry to the store to buy milk, bread and eggs – obviously in desperate need of French toast – and then hunker down as if we won’t be free of our homes for a month. When the snow stops, all we can see is the hours of shoveling, and the icy roads on which we’ll have to skid our way around town. We’ve lost our childhood delight in the wonders of the falling snow, in the way it transforms even the most familiar landscapes.

Fortunately, there’s a cure for this malady, and it’s a simple as picking up a camera and looking at the white-frosted world through its lens.

During the storm, a Carolina chickadee finds shelter in a gray birch tree, while a dark-eyed junco finds plenty to eat under my bird feeders.Snow at Home_5624acs

Snow at Home_5634acsMr. Squirrel ignores the food in front of him, and instead plots to raid the can of birdseed. The grass is always greener to our furry friend.

HNWR In Snow_8817a HNWR In Snow_8924acsA sunny day right after the storm entices us out to walk the trails at Heinz NWR.

This is the first time I’ve seen the Refuge covered in snow, and it’s delightful. Even the most ordinary things take on a new look.

Our old friend the chicken fungus now wears the face of Old Man Winter.

HNWR In Snow_8890a HNWR In Snow_8780aSparrows flit about among the grasses. We see tiny bird tracks and larger deer tracks everywhere. The snow is like Facebook for critters, recording their every movement for us to read.

HNWR In Snow_9005a HNWR In Snow_8863a HNWR In Snow_8902a HNWR In Snow_8931acs HNWR In Snow_8872aWinter is the time for beavers to get busy.

Frost_9058acs 2 Even a 2° morning has its charms. The polar vortex etches little ice feathers on my windows. Look quickly! The warmth of the house starts melting these beauties before I can even finish photographing them.

It’s so easy to come down with a case of snow panic with every storm. We all need to slow down, stop worrying and put down the shovel long enough to partake of the cure. An unhurried walk in a winter wonderland gives us a fresh look at our familiar world, and the gentle touch of Mother Nature’s magic lifts our souls.  HNWR In Snow_8909a

Dallas, On the Wild Edge

White Rock Lake Birds_5593a Winter scenery from deep in the heart of Texas. All in an urban or suburban setting. All within a short drive of Dallas.

Great-tailed Grackle at White Rock Lake, above.

White Rock Lake Birds_5616aSnow Goose, White Rock Lake – the “Blue Goose” color morph.

White Rock Lake_6637b Eastern Fox Squirrel, White Rock Lake.

White Rock Lake_6857aMonk Parakeets, White Rock Lake.

White Rock Lake_6802a American White Pelican, White Rock Lake, above and below.White Rock Lake_6877a

Trinity River AC_5434a Trinity River Audubon Center.

Trinity River AC_5304aHarris’s Sparrow, Trinity River Audubon Center.

Trinity River AC_5349a Spotted Towhee, Trinity River Audubon Center.

Cedar Hill State Park_6087a Canvasback, Cedar Hill State Park.

Cedar Hill State Park_6234aCactus, of course. Cedar Hill State Park.

Cedar Hill State Park_6204aGreater Roadrunner, Cedar Hill State Park.

BEEP-BEEP!

Coming up: Christmas at Longwood Gardens